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Ford Rechoreographs Plants To Allow For Workers To Socially Distance


This week, Ford will start bringing more than 70,000 employees back to work, mostly in the U.S. but also in Mexico and Canada. General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are doing the same starting today. Toyota, Honda and Tesla started reopening last week. Carmakers argue that the health of the economy depends in large part on them. I talked to Jim Hackett, the president and CEO of Ford, yesterday.

So this is a big undertaking that you're endeavoring this week. How do you know that it's safe to bring your employees back to the workplace?

JIM HACKETT: I think I can't overstate how important it is for the economy and for our workforce and for our company that we're able to turn everything back on on Monday. And so we've spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort getting ready for this day.

KING: I know that you're the CEO, and I imagine that means you may not spend a lot of time, for example on the assembly line in any particular plant. But I am curious - in plants where you've got people working shoulder-to-shoulder, now they have to work 6 feet apart. How do you separate people and still have room for all of your necessary employees? Are you only bringing half of the people back on site? What are some specifics that you're doing?

HACKETT: Well, this is my second industrial company that I've gotten to lead, so I've spent a lot of time in plant operations. And in fact this week, I will be going out to the factory floor just to make sure that everybody's happy with the protocols. We spent a lot of time putting together an extensive manual. The normal things that you would expect - for people to wash their hands, to wear a mask; there's thermal imaging. There will actually be rapid testing that can be done.

And the social distancing that you're talking about, we actually took into consideration as we thought through the way a vehicle is built. So for example, previous to COVID, we would put more than one person in a vehicle as it was going down the line as they were attaching elements. We've rechoreographed that, so that's not going to happen. And because you can build on both sides of the vehicle - these are large factories, you know, 3 to 4 million square feet - that you can create the distance that we're going to need for this to work well.

KING: One of the advantages, it sounds like you're saying, is that these plants are massive. In which states are workers coming back this week?

HACKETT: Well, there's four geographic areas that we're turning on. And I want to just point out, we already have turned on in Europe with nine facilities and a week earlier. We have a lot of experience there. And then two weeks ago, we have a joint venture with Mazda in Thailand where we have been on and in the four geographic locations, along with Europe and Thailand, will then be extensively (ph) turned back on. For now, we're concentrating here in Southeast Michigan and Kentucky and in Kansas City, Mo.

KING: The Trump administration did release guidelines for states on reopening. Now, the suggestion was that states see a downward trajectory in cases - so cases falling for 14 days. Has that happened in all of the states where you're reopening plants?

HACKETT: Yes. In fact, we were doing our own data analysis using the University of Washington information. Because of the incubation rate of the virus, you can actually work backwards, you know, from the fatality rate, which is not a fun number, to see what rate of infections were happening in every one of these geographies. Once the virus has an infection rate less than 1, it means that the next host won't be carrying it. So that's how we dampen this effect. So every one of these geographies had to hit at least that rate.

KING: It's been reported that at some Ford facilities, you plan to test workers who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. I do wonder, why not offer tests to everyone? Given that we know many people who get this virus don't have symptoms but they can spread it, why would you only test people who exhibit the symptoms?

HACKETT: Well, Dr. Fauci and the Business Roundtable have been having weekly sessions along with Robert Redfield from the CDC. And one of our well-known CEOs asked Dr. Fauci, should - why don't I just test every employee in my company every day? And the answer to that is just it's not practical here at the beginning, particularly with us - it will be over 200,000 people. There will be a day, Noel, that your question can be answered that way. It's not too far off, and it revolves around a daily quick test.

Now, here's the news, though. If you have symptoms, we can test right away. And so we've built that failsafe. So if you're asymptomatic and you don't have a fever and we haven't tested you, then we would contact trace if anyone around you got sick.

KING: Of the plants that you've reopened in Europe and in Asia, have any of them had to reclose because of COVID-19?

HACKETT: We've had no disruption in the previous plants that I mentioned have opened because of COVID-19. We have not found an infection in any of those factories. In Wuhan, which is where the center of the events started, we have some employees. And even there, the record of, you know compliance and coming to work has been really, really good. There's only been one case in the whole company where somebody was at work. And we asked them to leave, and we found out they were infected. We were able to contact trace that. It was not a factory. And we were able to clean the facility and reinitiate work. And I also point out, Noel, we've had a thousand people volunteering to build PPE for at least nine weeks now. Not one person has contracted the virus in those settings.

KING: Jim Hackett, president and CEO of the Ford Motor Company. Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Hackett. We appreciate it.

HACKETT: Thank you Noel.

KING: NPR's Camila Domonoske, who covers the auto industry, was listening in to that interview. Hi, Camila.


KING: So Mr. Hackett, Ford CEO, sounds very confident, very optimistic. You've been talking to autoworkers. What do they say?

DOMONOSKE: Well, there's a range of feelings, right? But there is definitely some anxiety among some workers. If you look at what happened in the meatpacking plants, some of which had really terrible outbreaks, that's the worst-case scenario. That's what everyone really wants to avoid. I'll also note that the UAW, the union representing these workers, is really emphasizing that testing issue that you brought up with Jim Hackett, this idea of why not test people who don't have symptoms? And while the UAW is not challenging the restarting of the industry right now, they are continuing to call for more widespread testing as soon as that's possible.

KING: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks so much.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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